Saturday, March 20, 2010

My Cleaning Lady is not a Slave

Two months into the year and already my desktop is cluttered with papers. It happens so quickly. I scarcely notice them piled up one after the other. I cannot complain. After all I am the one who puts them there. I am the one who leaves them there each day with the thought I will file them later. But I keep putting it off.

The woman who cleans our house is away for two weeks and I am mindful that I will need to try harder to keep abreast of all the mess that builds up over time elsewhere, not just here on my writing desk.

I had intended to write the words ‘cleaning lady’, but such words speak to me of class privilege and superiority. It took years before I allowed myself the privilege of a cleaning lady. Is it a privilege, or as some of my friends and colleagues at the time suggested, merely a more sensible use of my time? Besides, I rationalise, it involves giving someone else a job.

The woman who cleans for me is my equal. She is not a servant. She is not a slave. I pay her well, but still the concept bothers me and I hesitate to write it down here, to write about it for fear that readers might consider me to be blue blooded, well heeled, a snob, all those things that smack of class privilege from over one hundred years ago.

I used to be quite a housekeeper myself. Before this woman came to help with the cleaning on Fridays, I spent the better part of each weekend cleaning out the house, the toilets, the bathroom, the dusting, the vacuum cleaning, and the changing of sheets on beds.

I took pleasure in my efforts in those days when my children were young. Not now. Now I hate housework. I do whatever is necessary on a daily basis to get dirty dishes into the dishwasher after meals, to wipe down bench tops, to wash, hang and fold away clothes, but otherwise I keep my domestic habits to a minimum.

These days I spend almost every spare minute I have beyond my paid work, and the shopping, and the occasional task I must share with one of my now essentially adult children, to the business of writing.

In between my efforts at writing I read. But it is the writing that offers me greatest pleasure. I have an ergonomically designed chair to protect my back from the ill effects of sitting for too long each day and I visit the optometrist every two years to get my glasses adjusted so that my aging eyes can cope with the glare and proximity of the computer screen.

Let’s face it. Writing is a prosaic activity. The sight of someone hunched in front of a computer screen tapping away at a key board is one that does not inspire much confidence in said person. It is not like watching someone dive into a swimming pool, smash a tennis racket against a ball or climb the slopes of a mountain. The sight of someone who taps away at a keyboard has a quality of excluding the onlooker. I know this from memory.

Many years ago before I started to take my own writing seriously, when my children were still little and I spent many more hours at housework than I do today, my husband went back to university to study for a law degree. He was a conscientious student and although he tried hard to confine his studying to the nine to five life of a university student, he still needed to bring work home and to study on weekends, especially around exam time.

I remember well the resentment I felt as I watched him tap away at the keyboard in those days on one of the first computers that then existed, while I swept the floor or chopped vegetables. In those days we had no room for a study and he worked in the central living area, which continues today as the place in this household where people gather to eat, to talk and to play. I felt left out then, as if he were engaged in deep conversation with a beloved friend and there was no room for me.

I think of this memory often these days because now it is my turn to be so deeply involved in conversation with my keyboard, and others - my husband and my children - are the ones who must suffer from this sense of exclusion.
‘That’s all you ever do,’ my children lament. ‘You tap away at your computer.’

I resist a defensive response. I know it is true. If you want to find me these days, if I am not in the kitchen preparing food or tidying up after adult children, who still sometimes neglect to return the lid to the vegemite jar or fail to put their dirty dishes into the dishwasher, you will find me here, where I am now writing down endless words, writing into the ether to an imaginary audience.

I drive my car past my old primary school often. We still live in the neighbourhood where I spent a large chunk of my childhood, from five to fourteen years of age.

Our Lady of Good Counsel, OLGC sits alongside the church of the same name on Whitehorse Road in Deepdene. It is a prestigious neighbourhood. It is now, it was then, maybe more so now, but even as a child I knew that our neighbours and the children with whom I struggled to learn every day were from well to do families who seemed not to understand the struggle that my parents endured daily.

We lived on the fringes of the zone that took in the catchment area for this school. In more ways than one. Each day we walked to school, past the mansions on Mont Albert Road and the well appointed houses of Camberwell. We wore a typical uniform, the girls in blue and white gingham dresses in summer, tunics and pale blue shirts in winter, the boys in blue shirts and grey trousers, shorts all year round while at primary school. Our school jumper was grey, our school colours blue and gold. Hair ribbons were meant to be pale blue but somehow such ribbons if they ever found their way into our house soon found their way out, and more often than not, I tied my hair together with a rubber band, which the head mistress of the school, Mother Mary John, despised.
‘You’re a disgrace to the school, without wearing the proper school uniform and that includes the regulation ribbons’.

On Sundays we walked to Mass through the same tree lined streets but this time accompanied by our mother who gazed longingly into people’s gardens day dreaming of the time when she might own a house of her own. At that time we rented and already I knew the stigma attached to renting a house in Australia, the country in which home ownership is a must.

When she was a girl my mother lived in a two-storey house on the Marnixplein in Haarlem, Holland. Her parents employed a housekeeper to help her mother with her five sons and two daughters. My mother was the oldest. She told us often of how she would spend hours on her bed with a book avoiding the work that had been allocated to her as the oldest girl, notwithstanding the housekeeper. She hated housework then, as a child. She hated it as an adult when she was in the care herself of nine children and could ill afford the help of a housekeeper. Here I am more than half a century or so later complaining of the same lot.

I am the most slovenly of my three sisters, perhaps even of my five brothers, four of whom have wives who might clean up after them. I have given up on the call to domesticity, I am ashamed to say, but proud as well. It is an act of defiance.

In one of my writing classes many years ago, our then teacher, Olga Lorenzo, talked about the need for us women writers in particular to forgo the demands of domesticity and even of paid work in other fields to make time to write.
‘What do you want to have written on your gravestone?’ she asked. ‘That she wrote that she kept a tidy house or that she wrote a good book?’

The answer is obvious.
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